Our comprehensive introduction to nanotechnology and nanoscience
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Nanomaterials and Nanoscience
Nanoscale in Three Dimensions
Nanoparticles are often defined as particles of less than 100nm in diameter. We classify nanoparticles to be particles less than 100nm in diameter that exhibit new or enhanced size-dependent properties compared with larger particles of the same material.
Nanoparticles exist widely in the natural world: for example as the products of photochemical and volcanic activity, and created by plants and algae. They have also been created for thousands of years as products of combustion and food cooking, and more recently from vehicle exhausts. Deliberately manufactured nanoparticles, such as metal oxides, are by comparison in the minority.
Nanoparticles are of interest because of the new properties (such as chemical reactivity and optical behaviour) that they exhibit compared with larger particles of the same materials.
For example, titanium dioxide and zinc oxide become transparent at the nanoscale, however are able to absorb and reflect UV light, and have found application in sunscreens.
Nanoparticles have a range of potential applications: in the short-term in new cosmetics, textiles and paints; in the longer term, in methods of targeted drug delivery where they could be to used deliver drugs to a specific site in the body.
Nanoparticles can also be arranged into layers on surfaces, providing a large surface area and hence enhanced activity, relevant to a range of potential applications such as catalysts.
Manufactured nanoparticles are typically not products in their own right, but generally serve as raw materials, ingredients or additives in existing products.
Nanoparticles are currently in a number of consumer products such as cosmetics and their enhanced or novel properties may have implications for their toxicity.
For most applications, nanoparticles will be fixed (for example, attached to a surface or within in a composite) although in others they will be free or suspended in fluid. Whether they are fixed or free will have a significant affect on their potential health, safety and environmental impacts.
Fullerenes (carbon 60)
The C60 "buckyball" fullerene
In the mid-1980s a new class of carbon material was
discovered called carbon 60 (C60). Harry Kroto and Richard Smalley, the experimental chemists who discovered C60 named it "buckminsterfullerene", in recognition of the architect Buckminster Fuller, who was well-known for building geodesic domes, and the term fullerenes was then given to any closed carbon cage. C60 are spherical molecules about 1nm in diameter, comprising 60 carbon atoms arranged as 20 hexagons and 12 pentagons: the configuration of a football.
In 1990, a technique to produce larger quantities of C60 was developed by resistively heating graphite rods in a helium atmosphere.
Several applications are envisaged for fullerenes, such as miniature ‘ball bearings’ to lubricate surfaces, drug delivery vehicles and in electronic circuits.
Dendrimers are spherical polymeric molecules, formed through a nanoscale hierarchical self-assembly process. There are many types of dendrimer; the smallest is several nanometres in size. Dendrimers are used in conventional applications such as coatings and inks, but they also have a range of interesting properties which could lead to useful applications.
For example, dendrimers can act as nanoscale carrier molecules and as such could be used in drug delivery. Environmental clean-up could be assisted by dendrimers as they can trap metal ions, which could then be filtered out of water with ultra-filtration techniques.
Nanoparticles of semiconductors (quantum dots) were theorized in the 1970s and initially created in the early 1980s. If semiconductor particles are made small enough, quantum effects come into play, which limit the energies at which electrons and holes (the absence of an electron) can exist in the particles. As energy is related to wavelength (or colour), this means that the optical properties of the particle can be finely tuned depending on its size. Thus, particles can be made to emit or absorb specific wavelengths (colours) of light, merely by controlling their size.
Recently, quantum dots have found applications in composites, solar cells (Grätzel cells) and fluorescent biological labels (for example to trace a biological molecule) which use both the small particle size and tuneable energy levels.
Recent advances in chemistry have resulted in the preparation of monolayer-protected, high-quality, monodispersed, crystalline quantum dots as small as 2nm in diameter, which can be conveniently treated and processed as a typical chemical reagent.